Impact Climate

Climate Change Will Make Everyone Leave the Coast and Move to Austin

Or Houston, or Atlanta.
June 22, 2017, 5:59pm
Illustration via Aaron Barksdale

Think you won't be affected by rising sea waters because you live inland? Think again. A new study published in April predicts that heavily populated cities like Atlanta, Houston, and Austin could see a mass influx of people fleeing the coast because of climate change.

According to the National Ocean Service, global sea levels are rising at a rate of about one-eighth of an inch per year, all thanks to the rising temperatures and the melting of glaciers and other land-based ice (see Antarctica going green—literally). Researchers have primarily focused on how coastal communities will be impacted by these changes, thanks to the destructive nature of erosion and flooding. But it's easy to forget where these coastal residents might go once their homes are just straight-up underwater.

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But it's a serious subject that Mathew Hauer, an applied demographer at the University of Georgia, wondered about. "Sea level rise is not just a coastal issue or a coastal challenge," he tells VICE Impact. According to his research, "no state is left untouched by [sea-level rise] migration."

Hauer analyzed county to county migration data from the IRS of all places, and looked back 23 years to see what kind of ties were between areas of origin and areas of destination. He used that information to create a migration pattern, and projected future destinations of migrants in the United States. The findings show that the great American climate change migration could add more than 250,000 previously unforeseen future residents to Austin, Orlando, Atlanta, and Houston by 2100.

"It's really not that surprising that Atlanta, Orlando or Austin popped out." Hauer says, "They're relatively close to a coastal area, they have strong economies, and they already have pre-existing ties. There's already a lot of people moving from coastal communities into those areas."

Another interesting point Hauer brings up in his study is the likelihood that households living on the coast making more than $100,000 will find a way to adapt to sea level rise (SLR), and thus won't be among those who migrate to land-locked communities. Not only will cities need to prepare for more bodies, but, by Hauer's assessment, it's possible they may need to prepare for more bodies that need assistance.

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"Tracking adaptation is really tricky, he says, but "there's a strong case for equity in these kinds of conversations." The bottom line, though, is that everybody is going to be impacted in some way by SLR, some more than others. "Ninety-six percent of the US population lives in an area that will see some sort of migration due to sea level rise," Hauer says. "If you're in an area like Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, or wherever, you're going to be affected by sea level rise as well."

He suggests landlocked communities take climate change into consideration as they plan out long-term infrastructure. Not doing so, he says, could leave a city stressed and unable to accommodate an influx of people in terms of transit, affordable housing, or even water sources.

"If an area were not to accommodate this wave [of coastal migrants] or just choose to ignore it, then traffic might get worse or there might not be enough water to go around in a drought," he says.

The problem is, of course, that there are too many people out there who deny climate change—most notably, the President of the United States. After seeing the mayor of Tangier Island, Virginia, on CNN singing his praises, President Trump gave Mayor James Eskridge a call to chat. Eskridge recounted the conversation in an interview with DelmarvaNow. After telling the mayor his island seemed like a beautiful place, Trump addressed sea level rise as it impacts the Chesapeake Bay island.

"He said not to worry about sea-level rise," Eskridge said. "He said, 'Your island has been there for hundreds of years, and I believe your island will be there for hundreds more.' "

But real scientists disagree. According to the Army Corps of Engineers, the island shrinks by 15 feet each year because of rising sea levels and erosion. A 2015 report suggests that if nothing is done, Tangier Island residents have only about 50 years before they'll have to abandon their slowly disappearing home.

Then where will they go? Where will you?

If you're freaked out about climate change in a coastal city, urge your mayor to join the already impressive list of cities that have pledged to change to 100 percent renewable energy in the Sierra Club's Ready for 100 campaign.